Comment: Death penalty is being consigned to history, but there is still work to be done

By Kate Allen

What unites North Korea and the USA? Not much right now you might say, but both are nations that still execute their citizens.

This week Amnesty International, which is opposed to capital punishment in all circumstances, released its annual report on capital punishment. Despite setbacks in 2012, there is an undeniable trend away from the death penalty.

When Amnesty was founded in 1961 only nine countries had laws against the death penalty. By 2012, 141 countries had either abolished it in law or stopped using it in practice. In 2003, the number of countries carrying out executions was 28. In 2012 it was 21.

Sadly a number of countries have bucked the growing global trend. India, Japan, Pakistan and Gambia all resumed executions in 2012 and the number of executions in China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the United States remained high. So there's work to do if you share our view that capital punishment amounts to cruel and inhuman punishment, as well as a denial of the right to life.

What about the practical arguments. The death penalty is a strong deterrent isn't it?

This is one of the main arguments from death penalty supporters but it has again been blown out of the water by the latest research from the United States.

Meanwhile, other statistics have shown that capital punishment is often used against the poor, political opponents, the badly represented, racial minorities, and those with mental illnesses. And many of the thousands of prisoners awaiting execution around the world have also endured torture, unfair trials and the misery of a 'half-life' on death row.

Some countries continue to impose capital punishment for acts like having consensual sexual relations outside marriage, opposing the government, offending religion and even drinking alcohol.
This is despite international law barring states from handing out death sentences for any of these crimes.

In Sudan last year, two women, Intisar Sharif Abdallah and Layla Ibrahim Issa Jumul, were sentenced to death by stoning on charges of "adultery while married" in separate cases in May and July. In both cases the women were sentenced after unfair trials involving forced 'confessions'. The sentences were subsequently overturned on appeal, and both women were released.

In Iran at least ten people, mainly women, remain on death row having been sentenced to stoning for the crime of "adultery while married".

Also in Iran, four men were sentenced to death last July after being convicted of corruption and "disrupting the country's economic system" for their role in a massive bank fraud. Meanwhile, Iran's Supreme Court upheld the death sentence imposed on Gholamreza Khosravi Savadjani under charges of "enmity against God" for his alleged ties to a banned Iranian opposition group, the Peoples' Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI). He was originally only sentenced to a prison term and his death sentence came after two re-trials.  

In Thailand, at least half of the at least 106 new death sentences recorded in 2012 were against individuals convicted of drug-related offences.

In April 2012, China's supreme people's court ordered a retrial in the high-profile case of businesswoman Wu Ying, whose death sentence for "fraudulently raising funds" had been confirmed in January 2012.

Last December, online activist Raif Badawi was prosecuted for "apostasy" in Saudi Arabia, for founding a website for political and social debate.

And in North Korea there were unconfirmed reports that a senior defence ministry official was executed last October for drinking alcohol during the 100-day mourning period for the late leader Kim Jong-il.

It is time that these countries, and the others who still execute, asked themselves why they are still applying a punishment that the rest of the world is leaving behind. The setbacks we saw in 2012 do not alter that fact that in many parts of the world, executions are becoming a thing of the past.

Only one in ten countries in the world carries out executions and their governments have run out of arguments to justify themselves. There is no evidence whatsoever to indicate that the death penalty works as a special deterrent against crime. Too often the real reason for the death penalty's use is for political purposes; either as a populist measure or as an outright tool of repression.

Kate Allen is the director of Amnesty International UK.

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